December 25, 2016

Feast of Saint Stephen, Protomartyr

St. Stephen
December 26th, is the Feast of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr and archdeacon. He led the group of seven deacons who the Apostles appointed to help them minister to the poor and the marginalized in the early Church (having been ordained by Saint Peter himself). Stephen labored in imitation of Christ even unto the last measure of his life. The Church celebrates his heroic witness in making a comparison between the disciple and his Master.

His name is included in the Roman Canon and has long been invoked by Christians facing persecution. In addition to proclaiming the word at Liturgies, he distributed food and charitable aid to the widowed. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen preached Christianity; spreading the Good News throughout Jerusalem and debating Jewish teachers of the Law, which caused enmity.

When, at the age of 30, the Jews accused him of blasphemy, Stephen put his trust in the Lord. Before the Sanhedrin and the High Priest, he answered the charge. Stephen’s discourse recounts the history of the Jewish people who he upbraids for persecuting the prophets, including the Messiah: "Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the righteous one, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. You received the law as given by the angels, but you did not observe it."

The court sentenced Stephen to death. The Protomartyr was taken outside the city's walls to be stoned. Scripture testifies that the witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul (the future Saint Paul) who fully consented to the execution. Before giving up his soul to Christ, Stephen prayed for his persecutors: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. O Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." Acts says, "Devout men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him."

According to tradition, Stephen's remains were interned at Beit Jimal. His relics were later removed to the Church of Hagia Sion on December 26, 415, marking the date of his feast day. In 439, his remains were translated to a church built in his honor. This church was destroyed in the 12th century, and Saint-Étienne, a 20th-century French Catholic church, was built in its place. Part of St. Stephen's right arm is enshrined at Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Russia. Grant, Lord, we pray, that we may imitate what we worship, and so in, learn to love even our enemies, as we celebrate the holy Protomartyr who prayed for his persecutors.

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